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AQMD Is Told Acid Ban Might Doom Refineries

August 16, 1990|GEORGE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One small Santa Fe Springs oil refinery said it would have to close and another said its existence would be threatened if air quality officials enact a proposed ban on the bulk use of hydrofluoric acid at their plants.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District says the ban is needed to prevent a potential catastrophe that could threaten the lives of thousands living near four Southland refineries and a refrigerant manufacturing plant that use the acutely hazardous substance.

Although the four refineries that use the substance have previously complained about the financial burden of converting to less volatile sulfuric acid, the statements by the Golden West Refining Co. and Powerine Oil Co. spokesmen during an AQMD hearing last week mark the first time that industry officials have said refineries might have to close.

A final hearing on the proposed ban, which is to include comment on environmental and socioeconomic impact reports, is scheduled for Dec. 7.

Both sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids are used in a process that boosts the octane of unleaded gasoline.

The AQMD has previously cited industry-sponsored tests that showed a two-minute release of 1,000 gallons of hydrofluoric acid would form a dense, ground-hugging cloud of gas and vapor that could threaten life five miles downwind. Also cited was a history of accidents that resulted in large-scale releases of the substance.

At the hearing Friday, Golden West spokesman David Dragt said flatly that a hydrofluoric acid ban "would force the closure of the refinery" and that the immediate consequences would be the loss of 250 refinery jobs, as well as 1,000 positions in the Thrifty Oil gasoline station chain. Noting that Thrifty, Golden West's main customer for gasoline, is the area's largest independent gasoline retailer, Dragt said the ban "would result in higher gasoline prices" for consumers.

Powerine spokesman David Moore said the refinery "would be placed in jeopardy" by elimination of hydrofluoric acid. He said tight space on refinery grounds would prevent the refinery from constructing a sulfuric acid unit while continuing to operate the hydrofluoric acid unit.

Two larger refineries--Mobil in Torrance and Ultramar in Wilmington--also use the chemical to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline and also oppose the regulation, but they have stopped short of saying the conversion to sulfuric acid would force a closure.

Allied Signal, the fifth large-scale user that also would come under the proposed ban, uses hydrofluoric acid to make refrigerants and has said it would have to close its El Segundo plant because no substitute exists for hydrofluoric acid in its process.

In addition to the economic consequences, industry consultant Geoffrey Kaiser said the air quality agency was premature in declaring that hydrofluoric acid poses an unacceptable risk. Kaiser said the agency should first set a uniform standard for acceptable risk before imposing a ban and then measure the risk of a serious accident involving continued hydrofluoric acid against that standard.

But Kaiser declined to answer when AQMD planning director Barry Wallerstein asked him how many people would have to suffer serious consequences before an incident would be rated a major accident.

"I would prefer to defer that," Kaiser said.

In the largest recent accident involving hydrofluoric acid, 4,000 people were evacuated in 1987 when a cloud of hydrofluoric acid vapors escaped from the Marathon refinery in Texas City, Tex.

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